You might think that an NFL player wouldn't know what it feels like to be bullied, but I do. When I was a kid, classmates sometimes would pick on me and make fun of the gap between my front teeth. What they didn't know is that my gap is like an heirloom to me - something that runs in my family - and it isn't something I would change.
Being bullied because of my appearance didn't stop there. As a teenager, when I started growing, my feet followed my age - size 12 at 12, size 13 at 13... and so on, until I was 16 when my feet stopped growing at size 16. Since it wasn't easy to find shoes that large, I basically had one black, one white, and one athletic shoe to wear - not the latest Jordans like other kids. I was frustrated and I let it out on the field - sports can be a great outlet for that.
Of course, everyone wants to win when playing, but that competitive nature can sometimes cause some kids to make choices that leave others out or feeling less than others. Bullying in sports, in the classroom, or online can cause kids to become isolated and it’s known to be a risk factor for suicide. Kindness and being sportsmanlike means giving everyone a chance and realizing that some things matter more than winning, like relationships with your peers. A win can be momentary, but kindness and the impression that makes can last a lifetime.
There are some things coaches and schools can do to prevent bullying in sports and elsewhere:
- Promote a team atmosphere. A cohesive team is like a caring, protective, close-knit family, and being part of it can help reduce the chance of bullying.
- Praise inclusion and team work. This sends a clear message to any player that this is what the team is working towards.
- Be clear on roles, responsibilities, and expectations. School culture expands to the field, court, or track as well, so kids need to be aware of and understand rules and boundaries.
- Call out bullying and hazing. Coaches, parents, other officials should know when this is happening, because most leagues and groups have rules and values against it – and if they don’t notice, kids should make them aware.
- Have coaches set the tone and promote inclusion and sportsmanship. Coaches need to create a safe, respectful environment that models kind behavior for all kids.
Participating in sports can be a great way to develop strength and skill, learn teamwork, and build strong friendships. Bullying has no place in sports. It is much cooler to be kind, and that’s something we should make happen in every school and for every team.
If you aren’t sure where to start, StopBullying.gov is a great resource for coaches, teachers, parents, and anyone else interested in promoting healthy connections between kids. There’s even a resource guide for recreation leaders – so coaches, instructors, recreations staff, and volunteers can learn how to work through challenges so we can keep that space healthy for kids to play, relax, and be healthy.
Visit the Carlos Dunlap Foundation to learn more about his anti-bullying campaign.